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How can we be sure deprived get the right start?

It's Sure Start month and Phil Street is keen to suggest ways of reaching the parents other methods can't

The Government plans to establish 3,000 children's centres by 2010. But nearly half of parents eligible to attend existing Sure Start centres are not using them, so how will the new ones draw in hard-to-reach groups? I believe we need an intermediary between the centres and parents.

Many of the proposed centres will be in schools. This makes sense: parents visit schools nearly every day and linking centres to schools helps promote joined-up services and partnerships between parents and schools.

However, there are tensions in this plan. Parents' engagement with children's education may not automatically improve because they visit the centres. Working relations between teachers, parents and family workers are not always all sweetness and light.

Many parents face serious challenges in their lives and may not see an initiative such as Sure Start as attractive. Many so-called hard-to reach parents find such services hard-to-use and are far more likely to look to families, friends and neighbours for support - even though many of them often have just as many problems as they do.

Acute debt, housing problems, domestic violence and alcohol and drug abuse all make it difficult for parents to turn to experts or specialists. So much of their energy is consumed by extreme inconveniences - no private transport, poor housing, the need to shop every day, and coping with low-paid, anti-social jobs.

Such parents will need some convincing to visit a children's centre at school. They often lack the self-esteem and confidence to walk in and ask for help.

Undoubtedly, interventions such as Sure Start can boost people's confidence in their parenting skills. But the way services are offered is vital to the centres' success.

If we want to maintain a core of hard-to-reach parents all we need to do is keep treating them like failures, ignore their problems and adopt a narrow, service-centred approach. And, dole it out in a patronising manner.

I am a great believer in having skilled people in these centres - who will listen, empathise, and respect parents who come to them. We need such people working with parents in an intelligent mix of outreach, community-based provision and multi-agency working.

We know that parents under duress are deterred by formal structures, So to engage them properly we will also need go-betweens, who will reach them first, informally, to encourage them to take the first step towards those children's centres.

The community sector can provide those intermediaries. Their skills would need building to help them succeed. The intermediaries would also need their role and relationships with children's centres clearly defined.

Promoting partnership between the community sector and children's centres is the most productive way forward if we are serious about engaging parents experiencing deprivation.

Phil Street is chief executive of ContinYou, a community learning charity.

Its work includes Share - a family learning project that has supported almost 2,000 schools so far. For more information see

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